At Toronto’s Polaris Music Prize Gala in late September, Tanya Tagaq delivered a powerful performance that marked a shift in a contemporary independent music landscape which, for all its creative boundary pushing and experimentation, is often strikingly homogenous. For the eight years that the annual $30,0000 Polaris Prize has been awarded to a notable full-length Canadian album the winners have never featured Indigeneous representation, or even people of colour.
New frontiers: Young artists move Indigenous conversations forward
Tagaq, who won for Animism, her fourth album that Six Shooter Records released this spring, broke the dry spell by beating out the likes of the Arcade Fire, Basia Bulat, and Mac DeMarco to take the prize this year.
In her Polaris Prize performance, Tagaq projected a list of names of missing and murdered Aboriginal women onstage while she sang. In her acceptance speech, she told the audience to “wear and eat seal as much as possible,” stirring controversy when she finished with an F-bomb-laced message to the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
She wished to make a point, she told reporters later, that Indigenous communities should have the right to hunt and harvest seals, particularly in impoverished First Nations communities in Newfoundland, where the hunt takes place.
But the fact that her PETA statement caused such a stir and the list of missing and murdered women didn’t is an indicator, she says, of a widespread and sinister, willful ignorance.
“It’s exhausting to have people dismiss it,” she says. “I got tired of people thinking of the missing and murdered indigenous women as something that’s happening to somebody else because it’s not just somebody else. These are sisters and mothers.”
Tagaq, 40, was raised in Nunuvut and is Inuk. Her musical practice draws from Inuit throat singing, a practice usually done by two women. After actively performing and recording for nearly a decade, the Polaris distinction has provided a new, necessary platform to speak publicly about gender equality, indigeneity, and de-colonization—the issues closest to her heart.
“It’s something that I live with every day and that we talk about around my dinner table every day. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to bring these issues up because it’s not something I study from far away: it’s something that I live,” she tells Megaphone on the phone from her home in Brandon, Manitoba.
“What’s astounding to me is the general lack of empathy when it comes to Indigenous issues. Now, it’s time for people to bring awareness so that
there can be an attitude change.”
“Like waves against the rocks”
The process of undoing a colonial legacy that spans centuries and generations isn’t happening quickly. “It’s like waves against the rocks. It’s going to take a really long time for people to understand why they think that way about us,” Tagaq says.
“People don’t understand that there had to be this attitude towards Indigenous people in the first place in order for colonialists to ethically take the land and do what they did to us. They had to think we were inferior and they had to think we were savage animals and they had to dismiss us. Because you wouldn’t ever do that to an equal.”
From where she now stands as one of the major players in Canada’s independent music landscape, Tagaq is working to make public what she has been experiencing personally for years. Last month, she was sexually harassed while walking through downtown Winnipeg in mukluks.
“It was racially specified, what happened,” she recalls. She Tweeted about the incident, which was both taken seriously and reported on by national media—an event that’s still shamefully rare when it comes to the way we treat sexual harassment and assault.
“If I Tweeted every single time some asshole said something to me, it would be a lot!” Tagaq says. “It’s become a thing that has become normal and people accept it. And I just am finally powerful enough in myself that I can go, why the hell do I have to accept that? I don’t have to accept that. Nobody should have to accept that.”
We’ve reached a moment, Tagaq says, where what have been previously understood as exclusively Indigenous issues—issues of equality, of colonial violence—should move to a wider audience.
Tagaq is working to move the conversation forward through her music, and so, too, are a number of younger Indigenous artists whose work is breathing new life into how the Indigenous experience is articulated,
presented, and shared.
Taking back the land
In early October, 29-year-old Nisga’a poet Jordan Abel launched his second book, Un/Inhabited, at the Vancouver Art/Book Fair.
The book of conceptual poetry features appropriated text from 91 western novels. The novels, most of them published in the early 20th century, tell traditional western tales of the frontier, of the pioneer, and the relationship—problematized in Abel’s work—between “cowboy” and “Indian.”
“Depending on who you ask, [the western] seems to be this innocuous, antiquated form that we used to write and engage with, but it also seems to persist. People still write westerns, people still watch westerns. It’s still there. There’s kind of a romantic interest in the western as this kind of foundational pulp genre that is part of how we imagine North America as a whole and part of how we think about our contemporary societal structures,” Abel says. “There’s a real impulse, for me, to interrogate our foundational beliefs and those invisible structures of colonization that we don’t necessarily tend to think about very often, but are nonetheless present.”
Though the novels he appropriates in Un/Inhabited are fiction, those fictions did a lot to influence public consciousness about land use and who has the right to it. “I think they were really integral in creating a national fiction around these spaces, just the common understanding and belief that there were these blank spaces that were there,” Abel says, “and that the pioneers and the settlers were the ones taming it and shaping it and founding cities.”
A process of reclamation
In appropriating western novels and interrogating them—Abel digitally searched the texts for colonial language and ripped those words out—he re-territorializes a set of colonial narratives with a voice of his own.
“Processes of de-colonization often require similar or parallel moves as processes of colonization,” he says. “So in this instance, if I’m wanting to talk about spaces that have been appropriated, taken over, stolen, it actually makes a lot of sense to me to work backwards and steal and appropriate and re-adjust however I see fit in order to comment on those techniques and on the material itself.”
Abel is one of only a handful of B.C. Indigenous writers working in poetry. “I went into the particular niche and field because there were books out there I wanted to read that weren’t written,” he explains.
“I think it’s very beneficial to have as many voices as possible contributing to any kind of conversation surrounding indigeneity.”
His next book, Injun, will be published by Talonbooks in 2016. Between now and then, Abel will continue his PhD work in Simon Fraser University’s English department. His work appears in the forthcoming
“Futures” issue of Poetry is Dead magazine.
“One thing I love about poetry is it allows me that space to deal with difficult subject matter,” he says. “Because of its limited mainstream appeal, [poetry] is capable of doing things not possible in other genres.”
“A different temperature in the water”
Late last month, Jarrett Martineau participated in a sold-out book launch and panel discussion at SFU Woodward’s in downtown Vancouver. The 37-year-old Cree/Dene hip-hop artist came to town from Victoria to support the launch of noted political theorist Glen Coulthard’s latest book, Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition.
Megaphone caught up with him the morning after the talk. Reflecting on the unprecedented attendance at the launch and what feels like a growing public appetite to publicly address Indigenous issues, Martineau feels a shift in public mood.
“There’s a different temperature in the water, to my knowledge and perception,” he says. “I don’t attribute it exclusively, but I think a lot of it is an outgrowth of what happened with Idle No More as a really important intervention into broader public discourse. I feel like that interjection, if you will, was a really important one because it said, ‘No, we need to be having these conversations. We don’t have a lot of opportunities to even get together and talk about this stuff.’”
Cultural change precedes political change
Martineau, who was a key community organizer with the Idle No More movement, is currently at work on PhD in Indigenous Governance from the University of Victoria.
When he started his doctorate work, he also co-founded Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), a digital music platform to promote contemporary Indigenous music culture.
The site, RPM.fm, intends to introduce a general-public audience to contemporary forms of Indigenous music. Martineau has done extensive work with Tanya Tagaq and Ottawa’s Indigenous hip-hop group A Tribe Called Red.
“People have no idea there are Indigenous musicians making this diversity of music,” he says. “It’s also about building community from within. A really big part of what we do is try to get people who are recording in their bedroom and who don’t have access to maybe a bigger community of people to get their work out.”
Martineau is a former CBC television and radio host who formerly performed with Vancouver musical outfits The Front and Damage Control. He occasionally raps and samples under the stage name No-1. His current academic work brings together his personal experiences as a media artist and musician to investigate how art can be an instrument of social change.
“There’s an author, Jeff Chang, who wrote this great book called Can’t Stop, Don’t Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. He says cultural change precedes political change. I really think that’s true,” Martineau says. “Looking to art as a way of anticipating the kind of changes we want to realize in these other ways, I think, is really useful.”
A Tribe Called Red, he says, is a strong example of that. Their music “ended up opening up this space for engaging all these questions around cultural appropriation, representation, the politics embedded in them. All of this stuff that came out of the productive confluence they made through their artwork and through their music.”
Acts like A Tribe Called Red create space that provide, as he puts it, “a line in for people who wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in these kinds of questions. A hell of a lot more people, at this point, are finding their way to that music than they are going to search out the latest academic text or directly engage the politics. For me, it’s about creating spaces andopenings that way.”
What’s happening among younger Indigenous artists and thinkers now, Martineau says, builds hopeful momentum that he expects will grow.
“The violence is ongoing, so the need for that ongoing engagement is very real,” he says. “We need more ongoing spaces for these conversations. They don’t have to be formal or institutionalized or affiliated—it doesn’t have to be through a university or any kind of thing. I feel like the work that’s happening now is setting the stage for that: moving from reactive, spectacularized forms of big, public attention to a more ongoing process of engagement.”